BLUEFIELD — Eric McClanahan played only briefly during Bluefield’s 69-24 stomping of Wayne in the Class AA state championship game last season. It was still a thrill for the Beavers’ sophomore.

“Last year I got to play the last three minutes of the game and it was unreal being out there for that three minutes,” McClanahan said. “I can’t imagine how it’s going to be out there the whole game, it’s going to be exciting.”

Real exciting. McClanahan won’t be standing on the sidelines in this one, at least on offense. McClanahan will start at quarterback for the Beavers, leading No. 11 Bluefield (8-4) against No. 4 Weir (12-1) in Friday night’s Class AA state title game at Wheeling Island Stadium.

“It’s awesome. It’s a wonderful experience to be a quarterback and to be part of this team,” McClanahan said. “Last year I didn’t get to play. I watched, but it just made me just love football so much more. It’s just a wonderful game and I’m just glad to be part of it.”

With the Beavers coming off a 14-0 campaign and with nearly two dozen players having graduated, it appeared the Beavers were in rebuilding mode. However, Bluefield followed a step-by-step plan and now they’re back in Wheeling for a fourth straight season, looking for a ninth state crown.

“We just really took it one step at a time. We didn’t start out the season in August making assumptions that we would be in the state championship,” said senior Travis Steptoe, who has started the last two seasons at defensive tackle. “We wanted to get to the playoffs and then work our way to the state championship, and fortunately enough we made it.”

Even Bluefield head coach Fred Simon wasn’t sure what his Beavers could do. They started the season 0-2, won five straight, and then lost two in a row. Seeded 11th in the playoffs, Bluefield knew it would be an uphill climb. Not a problem.

“I don’t care if we were 13-0 right now heading up, or have four or five losses heading up, as long as we get there,” Simon said. “The race is not always smooth. As long as you win them, that’s all that matters so I’m real pleased to have a chance to go up there. I’m very, very happy.”

So are the Beavers. While Steptoe saw plenty of the field last season, much of this year’s hopes were attached to former reserves like J.T. Powell and Allen Collins, but probably not McClanahan. That’s when adversity sent Powell’s season into a tailspin. For a while.

“One minute I’ve been up and one minute I’ve been down, but I’m back now for the championship so it all worked out good,” Powell said.

Powell started the season at quarterback, injured his knee in the season-opener against Graham and was replaced the following week at Princeton by McClanahan. Powell then returned, started three games, but got hurt again, leading to surgery. McClanahan stepped in once again in a week six win over Shady Spring, and he hasn’t left that spot.

“I think he’s done an admirable job for a sophomore,” Simon said. “I think he’s gotten better each week. He’s definitely becoming a leader and I’m proud of him. He’s tried and that’s all we can ask of him.”

McClanahan admits to have matured much since his first start. While the Beavers are run-oriented, McClanahan has shown steady improvement, having completed 66.7 (60-of-82) percent of his passes, including five touchdowns and two interceptions.

“Fully not. I thought I was (ready) at the time (against Princeton), but now looking back I was so nervous, but my confidence has come up tremendous since then,” said McClanahan, whose favorite targets have been Mark Page, Maurice Jordan and Jonathan Payne. “I started doing a lot more lifting to make my arm stronger, and have gotten more velocity on my balls and my receivers have gotten a lot better too. We’re starting to have more confidence in each other.”

When Powell did return for the Beavers’ second round playoff games against Grafton, Powell, who is also a talented safety, was playing running back. He’s handled that spot just fine, running for 127 yards in last week’s state semifinal win over James Monroe. Bluefield is led in rushing by Allen Carter (621 yards), Payne (616), Shawn Brooks (334) and Steptoe (300).

“I love playing both positions, most of my life I have played running back,” Powell said. “I have played quarterback before, but the transition was fine with me, whatever I can do to help us win.”

Simon added: “He’s a good running back, he’s definitely a player. He plays hard every play, whether it’s offense or defense. He’s been very unselfish, it doesn’t matter whether he plays quarterback or running back, just as long as he can help the team and hopefully that is the attitude all our players have. He’s done a good job with that.”

Collins is another player who didn’t see much time last season, but has made up for it as a senior. He is starting at center and on defense, having recorded nearly 50 tackles. He felt the Beavers could get back to this point.

“We have worked hard and we knew we could do it ourselves, but we just had to have that faith,” Collins said. “We have gotten better as the season has gone on and we just kept improving and have been able to through the playoffs.”

A look at this game on paper and Weir appears to be the favorite. They’ve got two 1,000-yard rushers, a quarterback who has thrown for nearly 1,200 yards, and an offense that is among the state’s best. The game, however, is played on a field.

“I guess you have to assume we are the underdog just because of our record and ranking, but we’re down to the final two teams,” Collins said. “It’s even when the game starts.”

Powell never doubted the Beavers would get back to Wheeling. Now he wants another ring, and that’s not all.

“I knew we would be back,” said Powell, a junior who played mostly special teams last season. “It would be great to win this. I want to win another one and then hopefully come back next year and win another ring.

“Winning never gets old.”

—Contact Brian Woodson at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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